A Ghost at Gettysburg: The 20th Maine’s Mysterious Encounter
The story of Joshua Chamberlain, the 20th Maine, and their heroic stand on Little Round Top is one of the most famous from the battle of Gettysburg. While entire books have been written on the subject, a basic summary is this. On the burning hot day of July 2, 1863, the second day of fighting between Lee and Meade at Gettysburg, the slopes outside of town dubbed “the Round Tops” came to the attention of Union General Gouverneur Warren (pictured below). At that time, he was the Chief Topographical Engineer for the Union Army. He immediately realized the value of these tree-covered slopes, since they overlooked the entire battlefield. Whoever possessed them would have the ultimate advantage. Union troops were rushed to the slopes to keep them out of Confederate hands.
One of these regiments was the 20th Maine. Organized in 1862, they were one of many unfortunate regiments on the blood-soaked slopes of Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg later that year. They escaped Chancellorsville in the Spring of 1863, but only because of a small pox outbreak caused by a tainted vaccine. Now, under the charge of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the 20th Maine took their places on the far left of the Union line on the Round Tops at Gettysburg.
The flank was not a desirable place to be. If the 20th Maine fell back, the entire army would suffer a route and quite likely lose the battle. Plenty of pressure on its own, but they also had minimal time to prepare for the pending fight. In fact, they arrived just minutes before the echo of rebel yells sounded across the slopes.
Although both men and ammunition dwindled, the 20th Maine did the Union proud and beat back multiple, full-blown assaults from gray-clad rebels of General Hood’s division. The fighting was bloody and claimed many lives. Colonel Chamberlain wrote, “we opened a brisk fire at close range, which was so sudden and effective they [Hood’s men] soon fell back among the rocks and low trees in the valley, only to burst forth again with a shout, and rapidly advance, firing as they came.”
In short, the Confederates didn’t back down. After over an hour of intense fighting, Chamberlain’s men informed him that their ammunition had been exhausted. Their fateful hour had arrived. But surrender was the last thing on Chamberlain’s mind. “Desperate as the chances were, there was nothing for it but to take the offensive,” he later said of his forthcoming gutsy decision.
In a stunning gamble, Chamberlain turned to his troops and ordered them to fix bayonets. Then, the soldiers of the 20th Maine beat all hell across the slopes of Little Round Top, stabbing right into the center of the Confederate line. The assault’s intensity had the desired effect. The Confederates broke in a panic and several of them got captured. “The rebels were confounded at the movement,” writes survivor Theodore Gerrish. “We struck them with a fearful shock. They recoil, stagger, break and run, and like avenging demons our men pursue.”
So, in one of the biggest bluffs of the Civil War, the 20th Maine saved the slopes of the Round Tops and the Union left flank with nothing but the bayonet. But Gettysburg wasn’t finished with this rock-solid unit. On the third and final day of the battle, many exhausted 20th Maine members found themselves absorbing the brunt of Pickett’s infamous charge. They, along with many other regiments, again beat back the rebels, and Gettysburg got claimed for the Union. It’s a heroic tale if ever there was one, and it has spilled down through the ages. Even today, one can’t get through a Gettysburg telling without the story of Chamberlain and his 20th Maine.
A century and a half later, my husband and I took our own trip to Gettysburg under much more peaceful circumstances. It was springtime, and all the dogwoods and red buds bloomed over the battlefield. The grass was green and the skies were blue. It made Little Round Top an exceptionally beautiful place to visit, the site of the 20th Maine’s stand being just one of the stops we made.
We also strolled through the blooming peach orchard and the sprawling wheat field. We relived the opening shots of the battle in the open grasslands outside of town. We walked the grounds at Seminary Ridge and beheld the many monuments to the thousands of soldiers who fought during those immortal days. We also paid our respects in the graveyard, where a tragic number of stones are marked “unknown.”
After we finished walking the fields, we partook in another favorite tradition of Gettysburg. We hung up our anxieties and decided to go on a ghost tour. As darkness descended on the historic Pennsylvania town, we were led through the streets by a period-clad, candle baring lady who told us all of the city’s spookiest stories.
She said that on some nights, strange lights appear on the battlefields. Ghostly soldiers have been spotted lurking about the buildings of Gettysburg College. Cameras and electronic devices mysteriously go dead around places like Devil’s Den (read more about that here). A group of visitors once beheld a stunning reenactment on the battlefield, only to learn there were no reenactors in the area that day. Shots are often heard outside of town, yet when the cops go investigate, they find empty, still fields. It happens so frequently their special code for these occurrences is “1863.”
The stories were hair raising and we enjoyed them all, but my favorite had to do with the heroic stand of the 20th Maine. Because according to local legend, the regiment may have had some ghostly help with their amazing feat in the Round Tops.
The fantastical tale goes a little something like this. On the opening day of the battle, July 1, Chamberlain and his men were actually nowhere near Gettysburg. They marched on the double from Maryland in a speedy attempt to catch up with the rest of the army and stave off Lee’s invasion.
It was a difficult march, to say the least. Dust clouded the road, and the soldiers had to move fast in the oppressive July heat. They also came upon gory remnants of the fighting between famous Confederate General Jeb Stuart and Union horsemen who tried to best him.
In the dead of night, as they made their final approach towards the guns of Gettysburg, the regiment came upon a fork in the road. One path would lead them to the assistance of their countrymen, and the other would lead them on a wild goose chase. The maps were out of date and they had no idea which trail to take. Suddenly, in the bright moon light, a mysterious rider appeared on a magnificent pale horse. A brightly-colored tricorn hat adorned his head. He urged his horse down one of the paths, and then he waved for Chamberlain’s confounded troops to follow him. The strange man led them to the Union battle lines, and soon, the 20th Maine rushed to the aid of their Union brothers.
But who was the rider? Witnesses on the roadside that night gave mixed opinions. Some thought it was deposed General McClellan come back to lead them to victory. They threw their hats in the air and cheered accordingly, but as soon as the sun came up, they got fed into the battle fray and the mysterious rider was forgotten…
…Until the critical moment of the fighting on Little Round Top. As the frightened Union soldiers prepared to charge the rebel line with nothing but bayonets, the mysterious man reappeared. This time, he stood at the front of the Union line and bared a sword gleaming with fire. His identity was also unmistakable. It was George Washington. Now under the supernatural command of the general that helped give birth to their nation, the Union boys blasted over the hill and right into the pages of Gettysburg history.
It is one of the wildest accounts from the Battle of Gettysburg, and it circulated in Civil War circles for decades. One Google search of the subject yields many results. Some are outrageous, some are somewhat believable, and all are quite entertaining. On our own ghost tour, our guide saved this incredible tale for last and it sure made a fitting finale, as would any story that involves George Washington with a flaming sword.
But is it true? Most historians and academics will give you a quick answer – hell no. However, that might not convince some of the fighters from the 20th Maine. Even Chamberlain himself later noted that his troops were inspired by some curious vision that day.
When questioned on the subject after the battle, he had this to say – “Now from a dark angle of the roadside came a whisper, whether from earthly or unearthly voice one cannot feel quite sure, that the august form of Washington had been seen that afternoon at sunset riding over the Gettysburg hills. Let no one smile at me! I half believed it myself….”
In another interview on the matter much later in life, he also said – “…I have no doubt that it [the Washington tale] had a tremendous psychological effect in inspiring the men. Doubtless it was a superstition, but who among us can say that such a thing was impossible? We have not yet sounded or explored the immortal life that lies out beyond the Bar… I only know the effect, but I dare not explain or deny the cause.”
Inspired by this and the many stories from the tour, my husband and I made another bold decision during our visit to Gettysburg. When darkness fell, we returned to the battlefields to tempt fate and chance a ghostly encounter. We walked along the pitch black Emmitsburg Road, and we stumbled through the trees in the wooded area nearby. Although we encountered a few mishaps from walking around in the dark, we didn’t see any ghosts… at least not with our eyes.
I don’t know about the tale of George Washington and the 20th Maine. It seems a little out there, doesn’t it? But I do know this. Something hangs in the air over Gettysburg. A heavy, sad energy lingers about those fields and across the entire town. You can hear it in the breeze that rustles through the trees. You can feel it when you stroll through the graveyard. The old brick and stone houses, some still riddled with bullet holes and cannon shot, do loads of talking in the silence. And the sight of Pickett’s Charge drips with something that I can’t quite describe.
If you ask me, hauntings don’t always mean seeing a ghost. Sometimes, it’s just something you feel deep in your bones, and Gettysburg is definitely haunted. Because it is sacred ground washed in the blood of thousands. Something like that leaves a permanent stamp on the timeline, and the ghosts of such a past will never fade away.
“Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg” – J.L. Chamberlain
“Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage” – N. Trudeau
“Army Life: A Private’s Reminiscences of the Civil War” – T. Gerrish
Gettysburg Ghost Tours (2016)
“Ghosts of Gettysburg” – Mark Nesbitt
“Civil War Ghosts and Legends” – N. Roberts
“Civil War Ghost Stories” – A. Konstam
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more on Gettysburg, click here.
SUMMER TRAVELS!! – The traveling season is upon us, and I am very excited to announce that very soon, my husband and I will be embarking on a road trip across Western Europe for three weeks. This means this will be my last post for a month or so, and the website will be pretty quiet. However, the history doesn’t have to stop! You can follow along on Instagram and Twitter (handle mbhenry1985) as we visit eight countries and several WWI & WWII historic sites like Normandy, Verdun, Flanders, Dunkirk, Bastogne, and more! I will look forward to catching up with all of you when we return in August!